My review of...
Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories from Around the World
Edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard, and Christopher Merrill
W. W. Norton & Company, 2015
click to buy on Amazon
The author E.L. Doctorow once said that “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” This came to mind as I flew through the 86 stories collected in Flash Fiction International, each by a different author and each only a few paragraphs long.
“Really?” a friend asked when I explained the anthology’s concept. “Isn’t that too short to have characters and a plot and everything?”
Maybe, but it’s long enough to really rain upon the reader. The sensations packed in microstories are remarkably vivid. And as far as characters and plot? You might be surprised how much meaning crams into a page or two when the writing is rich and the editing is sharp.
If necessity is the mother of invention, strict word count limits are the mother of artful diction. As writer Choire Sicha observes in an interview for (ironically) Longform, “The best job I ever had was writing listings. You had to get them so tight and so small and so vivid it was like a writing workshop every week.”
The storytellers selected for Flash have mastered their workshops. Each piece is utterly distinct; the best are startlingly intimate, thrusting us into unknown and often unnamed characters’ most intense moments within several lines.
My personal favorite? “The Gospel of Guy No-Horse” by Natalie Diaz, whose opening line itself reads like a micro-microstory. “At the Injun That Could, a jalopy bar drooping and lopsided on the bank of the Colorado River—a once mighty red body now dammed and tamed blue—Guy No-Horse was glistening drunk and dancing fancy with two white gals—both yellow-haired tourists still in bikini tops, freckled skins blistered pink by the savage Mohave Desert sun.”
Nuala Ní Chonchúir uses a more straight-forward hook in “The Egg Pyramid.” “There are things you can do when your husband sleeps with your sister.”
On the other hand, some stories draw strength not from deep human drama but from stunning depictions of the mundane. James Norcliffe somehow wrings dark beauty from “Squeegee,” a one-paragraph narrative about mopping. On the next page, Qiu Xiaolong knocks us breathless with an episode told “From the Roaches’ Perspective.”
I’d argue these microstories have more in common with poetry than with novels. Like poets, flash fiction writers must weigh the value of every word, slashing and rearranging to achieve a powerful effect in just a few lines. Their structures vary wildly, but many of these stories could be compared to the classic sonnet, which introduces an idea only to “turn” two-thirds in and spin the reader in an unexpected direction.
Whether you’re a poetry fan or more of a mainstream book-reader, please, take a taste of flash fiction with this collection. After all, while many novels achieve a powerful effect, this book achieves 86.